There’s some potentially good news for the millions of women who are coping with insomnia as a consequence of menopause: A recent study indicates that the herbal supplement valerian is an effective treatment for women with post-menopausal insomnia.
Researchers at the University of Tehran examined the effects of valerian on post-menopausal women suffering from insomnia. One hundred women between the ages of 50-60 participated in the study. All the women had reported problems with insomnia. The women were divided into two groups: The first group was given a twice-daily dose of valerian for two weeks, and the second group received a placebo. The women who received valerian experienced a significant improvement in the quality of their sleep, compared to those in the placebo group. Researchers reported that 30% of women who took valerian for the two-week study period saw a positive change in their sleep quality, compared with 4% of women in the placebo group.
Valerian, a flowering plant that is native to both Europe and Asia and is now also grown in North America, has long been used medicinally, particularly for sleep – even the ancient Greeks wrote about its power in treating sleeplessness. It is the plant’s root that is cultivated and processed for use in supplements, which have been popular and widely available for decades.
There has been no significant research into the long-term effects of valerian use, which is a significant omission – as with any medicinal sleep aid, “herbal” or not, we need an understanding of its effects on the body over the long-term, both in regard to its safety and its effectiveness. The short-term side effects of valerian, however, we know to be relatively mild, consisting of headaches and stomach upset.
Women face challenges to sleep throughout their lives, but menopause often brings with it particularly difficult obstacles to sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 61% of post-menopausal women report experiencing some degree of insomnia. What happens during menopause that wreaks such havoc on sleep? There are several factors:
- Hormone shifts: Starting in perimenopause, the hormones estrogen and progesterone begin to fluctuate, and these short-term shifts can be disruptive to sleep. Over the course of menopause, the body’s levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease. Both estrogen and progesterone have effects on sleep, and the new, decreased, post-menopausal levels of these critical hormones can make sleep more difficult.
- Physical symptoms: Menopause brings about a number of physical symptoms that can be very uncomfortable and also challenging to sleep. Hot flashes in particular can pose frequent interruptions to a woman’s nightly sleep, leaving her feeling fatigued and sleep-deprived. Over time, interrupted sleep can take on a life of its own – insomnia and disrupted sleep can persist even after the hot flashes have disappeared.
- Mood changes: The process of menopause has not only significant physical changes, but also emotional ones. Some women will experience depression, anxiety and other mood disorders in greater frequency during menopause. These mood-related shifts can be a cause of sleep deficiency – they can also be a consequence of insufficient sleep.